Thursday, August 19, 2010

Court Affirms Life and Death Sentences In 3-Defendant Kidnapping/Murder Cases

US v. Wilson & US v. Lighty: These two opinions, released the same day, involve three codefendants - Wilson, Lighty, and Flood - who were involved in a kidnapping that resulted in death. All were charged with kidnapping resulting in death, conspiracy, and three counts of using a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Wilson's trial was severed from Lighty's and Flood's, thus the separate appeals. The two opinions cover over 115 pages, so there's obviously a lot of detail I'm leaving out (more so than usual).

The cases arose from the kidnap and murder of Hayes, who was on a street corner in DC with a friend when two men in a dark Lincoln approached and asked to buy drugs. Hayes and the two men went into an alley to complete the transaction. Hayes's friend looked in the alley a short time later and saw one of the men holding Hayes at gunpoint. The friend fled when the other man came at him with a gun. When the friend returned to the alley some time later, everyone was gone. Later that night, two men saw the car near a vacant lot in Maryland and watched as Hayes was dragged from it and shot twice while on his knees begging for his life. Wilson told his girlfriend later that night that he had driven the car to DC where he, Flood, and Lighty had "grabbed . . . the boy" and that Lighty shot him. The next day, he again told her that Lighty was the shooter. Wilson told a similar story to a friend, CW. After Lighty was arrested in possession of a .380 caliber handgun, Wilson told his girlfriend that was the gun used to shoot Hayes and that it had "a body or two on it" from a recent drive-by shooting, the "Afton Street Shooting."

Wilson was convicted of conspiracy to kidnap and sentenced to life in prison. On appeal, he raised several challenges to both his conviction and sentence, all of which the Fourth Circuit rejected.
  • First, Wilson argued that the district court erred by allowing the Government to present evidence about the Afton Street Shooting at trial. The court agreed that admission of the evidence was error, as it was neither intrinsic to the offenses with which Wilson was charged nor was it proper FRE 404(b) evidence, but that the admission was harmless, as the evidence against Wilson was "overwhelming."
  • Second, Wilson argued that the Government made improper comments during closing arguments, specifically by misstating the law of conspiracy. The court held that the statements were not erroneous, given the full context in which they were made which included the four other offenses with which Wilson was initially charged.
  • Third, Wilson argued that the district court at sentencing improperly relied on a written statement he made to investigators. The court held that the statement, given to civilian investigators while Wilson was in the military, was voluntarily given and could be considered at sentencing.
  • Finally, Wilson argued that the district court erred by denying his motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence and a Brady violation. The court held that there was no Brady violation and that neither a newly discovered witness nor a recantation by CW of some of his trial testimony required a new trial.
Lighty and Flood were found guilty on all counts. Lighty was sentenced to death and Flood to life in prison. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences after rejecting numerous arguments raised on appeal.

As to Lighty:
  • First, the court rejected Lighty's argument that his trial should have been severed from Flood's as their defenses were not antagonistic (though they were occasionally at odds), did not restrict the evidence Lighty could present to the jury, and did not violate his Eighth Amendment right to individualized sentencing.
  • Second, the court rejected several arguments about the admission of evidence, including the Afton Street Shooting evidence addressed above (harmless error), the exclusion of testimony from Lighty's witnesses about another potential perpetrator (no error), and the admissibility of a Government witness's answer to the question of whether she had any "doubt" about statements Lighty made to her (no error).
  • Third, the court rejected Lighty's argument that the Government's closing arguments during the penalty phase referencing the victim's family's desire that Lighty be executed denied him a fair trial, holding that while improper the statements did not affect Lighty's substantial rights.
  • Fourth, the court rejected Lighty's arguments that the district court improperly excluded several bits of mitigating evidence during the penalty phase.
  • Fifth, the court rejected Lighty's argument that the district court erred by refusing to give the jury an instruction that it was not required to impose the death penalty, regardless of its findings on mitigating/aggravating factors.
  • Sixth, the court rejected Lighty's argument that the use of the Afton Street Shooting as a non-statutory aggravating factor required it to be charged in the indictment.
  • Seventh, the court concluded that Lighty's death sentence was not the result of "passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor."
  • Eighth, the court rejected Lighty's argument that his consecutive sentences under 924(c) were improper or that the entire process was rife with cumulative error.
  • Finally, the court rejected Lighty's argument that he should receive a new trial on newly discovered evidence, as it did in Wilson's case.
As to Flood, the court rejected his arguments that his Confrontation Clause rights were violated by the district court's requirement that CW not specifically identify "three others" during his testimony and that the district court erred by not giving the jury a willful blindness instruction. The court also affirmed Flood's consecutive 924(c) sentences as it did for Lighty.

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